by Juan L. Mercado

“Don’t bargain for fish still in the water,” an old  proverb counsels. Only  10 kilograms of fish are now available for every Filipino yearly — a steep  drop from 28.5 kgs. in 2003.

If supplies are not to constrict  further, imports are inevitable, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala told Inquirer. That’d  impact an insular  Philippines. Six out of 10 reside along the coastal zone and fish provides low cost-protein for many. Since 1940, population has quintupled.

Fisheries accounts for a fifth of agriculture output. Destructive fishing is so widespread, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources proposed a ban in 10 of 13 fishing grounds. Other areas grapple with pollution.

There’s no quick fix in sight, BFAR director Asis Perez cautioned the 4th Governors’ meeting on protection of the Visayan Sea. More than 800,000 tons of fish were imported last year. Purchases were for galunggong, tulingan and mackerel, staple for many households.

“It’s only now there’s been public acknowledgement,“  Perez told five governors who head Visayan Sea provinces once  teeming with fish:  Cebu’s Gwendolyn Garcia, Iloilo’s Arthur Defensor, Masbate’s Rizalina Larente and Negros Occidental’s Alfredo Maranon.

The irony of bolting shortages, amidst once abundant resources is patent. The Visayan Sea falls within the “Coral Triangle”—world center for marine diversity.

The “Triangle” sprawls over 5.7 million square kilometers of tropical seas. Six countries are lodged within it: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. About 120 million people depend on it’s biological resources for their livelihood.

How did we get into this mess?  Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute describes this “overshoot” in his book “World On The Edge”.

“Four fifths of oceanic fisheries are being fished at capacity or overfished and headed for collapse,” Brown observes.  ”In system after system, demand is overshooting supply”. The result is slumping water tables, soil erosion to ravaging of forests. (About 52 percent of topsoil in the Philippines is eroded. And a little over ten percent is left of natural forests.)

“We are dangerously close to the edge,” Brown adds. Former Rockefeller Foundation president Peter Goldmark, puts it well: “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility. It is the road we’re on.”

Look at the Sulu Sea and Tubbataha Reefs. “Malthusian overfishing” ravaged them, reports an earlier Swedish Academy of Science study.  “For many fisheries, their status may be summed up as ‘IUU’ or Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated”.

Inexhaustible marine resources are a shattered myth,.This crunch spawns practices like introduction of alien species and poison.

“Squirting cyanide into reefs to stun fish originated in the Philippines and Taiwan in the 1960s,” the UN Environment Programme recalls. By the mid-1980s, “more than 80 percent of fish harvested, destined for aquarium trade, were collected using cyanide.” Misuse of cyanide spread to Asean countries, then leapfrogged to Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and Seychelles. Cyanide decimated marine populations and wrecked vital reefs.

Conservative “projections of how coral reefs respond to global warming must now be modified”, says the new State of the Ocean study. “Instead of respecting oceans as a life-giving miracle, we often use them as vast garbage dumps and as stores with shelves that never go empty”, write the 27 scientist-authors from six countries.

Moro Gulf fishermen used to land 100,000 tons of fish yearly. That’s down to 2,000 tons, mostly trash fish. Panay Gulf and Bohol Sea yield a third of their original record of 15 metric tons. General Santos tuna catch hasn’t recovered since its 2004 slump.

Headlines focus on Senator Miriam Santiago’s high decibel abuse of prosecutors at the impeachment trial.  But increased hunger from shriveled fish caches will persist  after Santiago ’s accent recedes into a half-remembered nightmare.

“All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort despite increasing effort, says World Bank. Fish are harvested at a level 30 to 50 percent higher than the natural production capacity. Domestic demand for fish could reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020.

If business-as-usual policies persist, marine capture fisheries will buckle from the “overshoot”. “(That) could lead to an eventual collapse of fisheries and the fishing industry, which employs more than one million people.

The strain is reflected paradoxically in areas where gains are promising. Take conservation  of mangrove forests. These intertidal forests — characterized by exposed roots and murky  water — serve a crucial buffer zone between land and sea.  They are incredibly productive hatcheries for fish, crustaceans and other sea life.

Keep a four-to-one ratio of mangroves to aquaculture ponds, suggests marine biologist Jurgenne Primavera, named by Time Magazine as one of world’s top 100 scientists.  Mangroves shrank from 5,000 square kilometers in 1918, to less than 2,420 square kilometers today, due to expansion of aquaculture.

More than a third of fish today come from aqua farms. Mangroves would help ensure that the aquaculture boom doesn’t  fizzle.  “All we have to do is use them”, Primavera says.

Local officials to a chief justice  with padlocked dollar accounts must pitch in to reverse these trends. A little boy — who offered five loaves and two fishes — enabled five thousand men to be fed in Galilee.  

(Email: juan_mercado@77yahoo.com)

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